Kerala style challenges of flood and faith in the US
Following the media in Kerala and New York simultaneously, I get an uncanny sense of some similarities between the two situations. The coverage of hurricane Florence here is as intensive as in Kerala and, as in our state, political controversies relating to disasters are also raging even as the state is battling the hurricane.The President’s expected role at times of disasters is to consult emergency officials, express concern for the victims and to assure the public that the Government is ready for any emergency. This is exactly what the Chief Minister of Kerala did at the time of the worst flood of the century in the state.
The unpredictable President Trump has also been awarding himself high marks for handling the recent hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and accusing the media and the opposition for exaggerating the death toll “to make me look as bad as possible.” He has denied the general assessment that Maria took 3000 lives and placed the figure of deaths at a ridiculous figure of less than 20. Not even the most totalitarian leader would have made such a claim to establish his infallibility. He has only exposed himself to ridicule once again. “Democrats don’t need to lift a little finger to make the President look bad. He is managing that all on his own,” said the New York Times.
The Catholic Church in the US is as much in crisis as in Kerala, with unending revelations of clerical sexual abuse demanding radical change in the system. The serious charges against Archbishop Franco Mulakkal appears minor compared to a report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailing seven decades of sexual abuse of thousands of children by more than 300 Catholic priests. Pope Francis has summoned senior bishops from around the world to address the issue. Kerala representatives, if any, may also have much to answer at the meeting. Preceding the Pope’s initiative, the law enforcing authorities have begun investigations about the cases in the US. If Kerala continues to obfuscate legal action, the Catholic Church and the state might face severe criticism.
The situation unfolding in the media in the US with regard to Hurricane Florence is in contrast with the chaotic images that emerged on the television during the floods. In addition to the floods and the landslides like in Kerala, the severe storm raging in two states add an additional hazard. While the rescue operations in Kerala were triggered by volunteers like fishermen and the youth, here the officials are visible everywhere in identifiable uniforms, assuring safety and support. The movement of the hurricane is predicted repeatedly and evacuation is enforced without any leeway for erratic behaviour. The television anchor persons are themselves reporting from rain drenched areas without sitting in the comfort and security of their studios.The involvement of the authorities and credible media persons give comfort to the citizens even in extreme adversity. Those who refuse to move from danger zones are clearly told that they would stay at their own peril. America stands for freedom, but not freedom to commit suicide.
Unlike in Kerala, the state authorities have no issues with the Federal Government either about allocation of resources or about acceptance of foreign assistance. In the normal course, there is no ban on receiving foreign assistance, but the matter of resources is in the hands of the Federal authorities. Perhaps, the model that Prime Minister Modi has in his mind is the American one. But a real Super Power is more confident than an aspiring one. The US had no qualms in receiving cash assistance from India and bottled water from France during hurricane Katrina. It is not a matter of the country being unable to cope with the crisis, but its willingness to believe in international cooperation.
Florence is different from its predecessors as it is slow in its movement and it is causing more damage because it settles in a particular area for long. This is the first time in the US that a hurricane causes landslides, one of the reasons for many deaths in Kerala. But the tracing of the likely movement of the hurricane takes the surprise element of its fury. Stranded victims are spotted and they are rescued immediately and taken to well organised and well equipped relief camps. The kind of chaos we saw throughout the crisis in Kerala is not in sight here. The frequency of hurricanes, the experience gained over the years and the relative affluence of the victims ease the impact of natural disasters.
A disturbing report from South Carolina is that the authorities, while insisting that everyone in the projected path of the hurricane should be evacuated, chose to leave thousands of prisoners in high security prisons and they were never given a chance to evacuate. The reason given for a such an inhumane decision is the risk involved in transporting them in the present situation. Authorities say that many may escape and cause panic in the society. But the policy has been severely criticised by human rights activists. Many prisons are in the evacuated zones and if some drown in the flood waters the Government would be held guilty of cold blooded murder. The prisoners are said to be bracing themselves for the flood, which has reached some of the prisons. Such a decision could not have been taken in Kerala. The prisoners in Kerala were involved in preparing food for the flood victims and nobody was discriminated against in the matter of evacuation.
As on September 16, Florence is far from over, though it has been downgraded. It has moved from South Carolina to North Carolina and it may continue to cause damage till September 18. More rains are expected, but the worst seems to be over. There have been seven deaths, a low figure, considering the gravity of the storm and the floods. The low casualty rate is on account of early predictions of the movement of the hurricane and the quick rescue operations. In the Carolinas, the victims and the rescuers won the race against time while in Kerala, we succumbed to it for want of appropriate warnings and inadequate preparedness. But the challenges of the floods and faith in the US seem similar to those in Kerala.
T.P. Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967)
Former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA
Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services,
Director General, Kerala International Centre.
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